In The Poor Had No Lawyers, Andy Wightman does four things:
- > He recounts the history of Scotland as a history of successive land grabs.
- > He explains how these land grabs express themselves today in the wildly unbalanced patterns of territory ownership in Scotland.
- > He offers some cogent and well thought through arguments about how land reform could happen.
- > He puts yet another nail in the coffin of the “Vote No” campaign.
My mother is not the kind of person who has a list of “personal heroes”. She is not easily swayed. But growing up it was evident that at least one of the great titans of Irish history had her allegiance and that was the one armed land agitator and trade-unionist, Michael Davitt. Davitt hailed, like my mother, from the western county of Mayo. But in the late 1800s his influence across the island of Ireland and even into Britain was massive. He secured tenants rights for the multitude of farmers that up till then had relied on the graces of their absentee landlords to get by. He initiated a land reform movement that would successfully deconstruct the vast estates, owned by the landed gentry of England, that covered the island. He tried to preach his message of worker solidarity and agitation in Britain.
But Scotland still needs a Davitt.
The first land grab came soon after the Norman invasion, back in the 1100s. The monarchy installed feudalism at the expense of the existing clan structure. The second land grab came soon after the Reformation. The state installed Presbyterianism at the expense of the existing church and monastic lands. The land grabs continued up until the turn of the 20th Century, as common land that was a rich resource across the country slowly got stripped away and appropriated by landed interests.
The common agitation that ought to be Irish and Scottish independence is revealed as far back as 1609, when the Royal Privy Council forced the clan chiefs to submit to English ways or lose their lands. Notice how the legislation sees “Irische” as the root of the problem. Schools would be established in every parish in the Highlands so that:
the youth be exercised and trayned up in civilitie, godlines, knawledge, and learning, that the vulgar Inglische toung be universallie platit, and the Irische language, which is one of the chief and principall causes of the continewance of barbarities and incivilitie amangis the inhabitantis of the Ilis and Heylandis, may be abolisheit and removeit.
Abolishing language because it is barbarous and uncivil is the height of urbanity and civility.
The pattern of landownership in the nineteenth century became more concentrated as the new Highland elite extended their holdings. By 1870, for example, Sir James Matheson, who had amassed a vast fortune from trade in China, owned 424,560 acres of land. The Marquis of Breadalbane owned 458,421 acres across Perthsire and Argyll. The Duke of Sutherland held all but a few glebes and lighthouses across the 1.2 million acres of Sutherland. And, by 1900, over half the land area of the Highlands was owned by just fifteen landowners.
– Andy Wightman, The Poor Had No Lawyers, 46.
Things of course have vastly improved between then and now.
969 people own 60% of Scotland.
If a people do not own the land, the people are not free.
Counting inland water and land, Scotland consists of about 19.5 million acres. 1,550 people own over 10 million acres of that. Voting yes at least opens the possibility of land reform. Voting yes at least puts some distance between the governance of Scotland and the culture of English aristocracy, most perfectly captured in the ongoing expansion of Elizabeth Windsor’s private estate at Balmoral, which she inherited from her parents, who inherited it from their parents, who bought it under a dodgy deal in 1852 and then had a law passed in 1853 to make sure that they could keep it. It has been expanded at least five times since the end of World War II.
The United Kingdom currently holds the world record for invasion of other sovereign states. Only 22 countries haven’t had the honour of Her Majesty’s forces arriving with weapons and the threat of murder. How did a little temperate island in the north Atlantic come to dominate the world for centuries? They had a training grown for colonizing in Ireland. This laboratory meant their research and development, when it came to imperialism, was way ahead of competitors. But Scotland suffered in the same way. It continues to suffer, with a disproportionate number of its young working class men serving and dying in Britain’s contemporary wars of profit.
The final land grab that Wightman records is the grab for Africa, India and southern Asia, which was accomplished with technique, manpower and politics that originated in Scotland.
An independent Scotland will have many obstacles to face. Engineering the cogs and wheels of government will be complex. Devising an alternative economic strategy to the exhausting approach modelled in Ireland might be too much to hope for. And the people who will run this new country are as craven as the next batch of politicians. Watching “You’ve Been Trumped” demonstrates that! But land matters. Land reform will most effectively happen under an independent Scotland.
Your Correspondent, He’s the reason today bananas are called “yellow fatty beans”